My personal journey through the criminal justice system began with an early morning phone call 16 years ago. My dad was on the phone and, between sobs, told me my brother, Mark, was dead. He had been murdered on the doorstep of his home.
I don’t remember much more after hearing those words. I am told I screamed. During the next few days I saw our drama being played out in the newspaper and on television. My brother’s death was not a private affair for the family to mourn. It was a public horror story.
We hear similar stories every day. Crime respects no group, class, income, education, race, ethnicity, or religion. Even those who are safety conscious and make every effort to stay out of trouble can become victims.
Did you know that in the United States:
• A hate crime is reported every 55 minutes;
• Someone is murdered every 31 minutes;
• Someone is killed in an alcohol-related crash every 31 minutes;
• Someone is raped every 2.7 minutes;
• A woman is victimized by an intimate partner every 1.4 minutes;
• A man is victimized every 6.7 minutes;
• A child is reported abused or neglected every 36 seconds;
• A home is burglarized every 9.2 seconds;
• A person is assaulted every 7.2 seconds.
In the Gospel of Luke (10:25-37), Jesus tells the story of the Samaritan who showed mercy to the crime victim who was left for dead. As followers of Jesus Christ we need to do more than just ask ourselves “who is my neighbor?” Christ has already answered that question. We need to respond to our neighbors.
It is possibly one of our greatest gifts, as the communities of faith, to provide safe havens for healing. Victims of crime need faith-filled people to walk alongside them through the trauma and healing experience. At various stages crime victims turn to faith communities for support. But leaders may not be aware of the impact that crime can have on the life of the victim, or how communities can help, especially in cooperation with the criminal justice system. By building collaborative relationships among governmental victim service providers and churches, people of faith can help ensure that crime victims receive a full range of services and support to meet their psychological, financial, physical, and spiritual needs.
“This is the first time anyone has offered to
help me with my burglary problem.
I am grateful that someone cared enough to call.”
—A victim whose home had been broken into nearly 50 times in the past decade.
Many times crime victims are trying to understand human acts that are beyond comprehension, and start to ask questions such as: Where was God? How can a loving God allow such hurt? Crime survivors are confused and frustrated, even to the point of anger, by God’s apparent lack of intercession and protection during their experience. Well-meaning friends, family, and even clergy will sometimes say “religious” things that can hurt more than help the victims healing. In nearly every case, people mean well but may not understand that feeling better is simply not possible at first and the only thing the victim really wants is for someone to join in their suffering.
Victims of crime need help. Not only at the beginning of their grief and healing journey, but all along the way. Although clergy are trained to visit the sick, the dying, and the bereaved, very few are aware of how important the ministry of presence is during the criminal justice process. Victims need a faith representative to bear witness and give support during this part of their recovery.
In my experience, the sense of victimization continued through the years as various news organizations revisited the murder and the continuing legal procedures. While it is important that news organizations do not sanitize the impact of criminal violence in our culture, the unexpected image of the perpetrator, the body bag on the gurney going into the back of the ambulance or the coffin being lowered into the ground will continue to open the wound of the victims and their families and friends. Images such as these can be the final record of their loved one’s life and are particularly painful to victims. It is especially difficult for victims, their families and friends, when the perpetrators name becomes recognizable, but their loved one is only indentified as “the victim”.
It is possible for us as members of our faith communities to support and care for some of our most vulnerable neighbors by simply practicing the ministry of presence, by listening to the cries of the broken-hearted and by offering sanctuaries for healing.